Scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research , London, have used large sets of data to create a map to understand the link between the shape of breast cancer cells and genes.

The METABRIC study has been funded by Cancer Research UK and based its research on a data set containing cell shape measurements for 307,643 cells across 18 breast cancer cell lines, and a data set describing the expression of 28,376 genes across the same cell lines.

After analysing cell shape in millions of images in the data sets, researchers found that cancer cells change their shape to respond to and protect themselves from their surrounding environment.

It was also found that changes in cell shape can be caused by physical pressures on the tumour and are converted into changes in gene activity.

By using their maps to analyse thousands of samples taken from women who participated in the Cancer Research UK-funded METABRIC study, the researchers discovered that the changes are linked to clinical outcomes for patients.

Institute of Cancer Research dynamic cell systems team leader Dr Chris Bakal said: “Our study reveals an exciting link between the forces that act on cancer cells and the development of the disease.

“We used ‘big data’ approaches to carry out a complex analysis that would once have taken decades, in a matter of months.”

Furthermore, key areas or ‘stations’ have been identified within the network that acted as hubs for the flow of information.

"Our study reveals an exciting link between the forces that act on cancer cells and the development of the disease."

It was found that a protein called NF-kappaB plays a key role in this shape-gene network and is expected to drive the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Additionally, the researchers found that NF-kappaB is rarely faulty in solid tumours, therefore suggesting disease progression is mainly influenced by the surrounding mechanical forces that switch the gene on.

Cancer Research UK chief scientist professor Karen Vousden said: “Understanding the links between how a breast cancer looks and acts, alongside its genetic makeup, will help researchers develop a more detailed picture of the disease.

“The insights and approaches used in this research could one day lead to us being able to tell from appearance, how aggressive someone's cancer is and how likely to spread, helping doctors decide the best course of treatment.”

Image: The researchers used large sets of data to map out this network of links between cell shape and genes. Photo: courtesy of Cancer Research UK.